Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Nets

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/GettyImages
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: On the Road Again

There’s only 10 games remaining in what’s been a weird regular season for the Wine & Gold. The Cavaliers have been up and down all year – and they’re definitely trending up as we head for the homestretch, winners of four straight as they tip off a three-game road trip on Sunday in Brooklyn.

On Friday night at The Q, the Cavs wrapped up a three-game homestand in style – crushing the shorthanded Suns for the second time in two weeks.

In the win, the Wine & Gold – buoyed by the return of Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson – got off to a slow start before turning things around in the second quarter and cruising to the finish line.

The Nets have dropped 17 of their last 21 outings but are 2-2 over their last four. They gave Toronto all it could handle on Friday night before falling by four north of the border.

The Cavaliers have gone 2-1 against the Nets this season, averaging over 118 points per contest, and have won 12 of their previous 15 meetings with Brooklyn.

Cleveland would love to send the Nets to another loss for Draft and Lottery purposes, but mostly they want to keep their roll going with just over two weeks remaining in the campaign.

Key: King of New York

As the Cavaliers have struggled to get healthy over the last month, LeBron James has had to go full-throttle to keep them above water in the Eastern Conference Playoff race.

But this week, the Wine & Gold started getting some of their bodies back – and on Friday night, James got a rare fourth-quarter respite in the blowout over Phoenix. In 29 minutes of work, James led both teams with 27 points, going 11-for-16 from the floor to go with nine assists, six boards and a block.

He didn’t commit a turnover until the third quarter of Friday’s win and, combined with a his 17-assist, 0-turnover performance on Wednesday, handed out 28 straight helpers without committing a miscue.

The four-time MVP has been excellent through the first three meetings with Brooklyn this season – averaging 31.0 points on 58 percent shooting from the floor, 54 percent from long-range, adding 9.3 boards and 9.7 assists – notching triple-doubles in two of those contests.

Key: Guarded Optimism

The Raptors still have the best mark in the Eastern Conference – and maybe it’s best starting backcourt. But the Cavaliers starting guards each had outstanding performances against them, with George Hill and Jose Calderon combining to go 15-for-18 from the floor, including 6-of-6 from deep.

The Raptors got another dose of that on Friday night against the Nets – with D’Angelo Russell notching his first career triple-double and Allen Crabbe drilling five triples to set the Nets overall single season record.

Russell, in his third year out of Ohio State, finished with 18 points, 13 assists and 11 boards in the loss; Crabbed netted 18 points of his own, going 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.

Both players are having their best seasons – with Crabbe topping the 20-point plateau in 13 games so far this season and Russell averaging 19.9 points per over his last seven outings.

Russell has only faced the Cavs once this season – but he was very good, finishing with 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting in Brooklyn’s February 27 loss in Cleveland. Crabbe, who was briefly a Cavalier on Draft night in 2013, has posted double-figures in all three meetings against Cleveland this campaign, although the Cavs held him without a triple in six attempts in their recent win at The Q.

Key: Comeback Kids

It seems like forever since the Wine & Gold were completely healthy – and they’re still waiting for rookie Cedi Osman to return. But this week, the Cavaliers got a quartet of key players back, and the results were tangible.

On Monday night, Kevin Love returned from a 21-game layoff after fracturing his left hand – and he picked up right where he left off, averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 boards and 1.3 steals, shooting 48 percent from three-point range and .917 from the stripe through three games this week.

Tristan Thompson didn’t have a big offensive game in his return on Friday night, but tied Larry Nance Jr. for the team lead with 10 boards. For his part, Nance Jr. notched his fifth double-double as a Cavalier, netting 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting to go with 10 boards and a pair of assists in the win.

Rodney Hood barely missed double-figures in his first game back after missing the previous five of the previous six contests with a sore lower back – finishing with nine points, going 4-for-8 from the floor to go with three boards and an assist.

Key: Clash of the Classmates

Like most teams enduring the NBA’s 82-game grind, the Cavaliers have sought consistency all year long. And one of their most consistent performers since his arrival in early February has been Jordan Clarkson.

The fourth-year guard from Missouri notched 17 points in his first game as a Cavalier and has barely slowed down since – notching double-figure scoring in 14 of his 18 games in the Wine & Gold.

In Friday night’s win, Clarkson – the league’s second-leading bench scorer – almost single-handedly changed the complexion of the game, netting 11 of his 13 points in the second quarter, helping key a 32-7 run to close the period and put the Cavaliers on easy street for the rest of the night.

The Nets have gotten similar consistency from an old friend, former Cavalier Joe Harris – drafted 13 selections before Clarkson in 2014 – who’s having his best year as a pro in his second season in Brooklyn.

Harris is in the top 10 in three-point percentage, is third in three-point percentage on the road – behind only Utah’s Joe Igles and Cleveland’s George Hill and the only player in the league with a better field goal percentage on drives to the basket than Harris is a former teammate named LeBron James.

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